A star cartoonist’s personal struggle

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A star cartoonist’s personal struggle

As many people know, among last year’s best-selling books in Korea was a series of comic books, “Enjoy Greek and Roman Myths as a Cartoon.” Few know, however, that the author behind the unexpected success suffers from an incurable illness, called Bechet’s disease.
Hong Eun-yeong, 40, has been fighting the malady for more than three years, while drawing the cartoons at her Busan home. “Finishing up one single book meant another 10 or more bedridden days,” Ms. Hong said. “I could say that I worked at the cost of my life.”
During a recent interview in Seoul, which she briefly visited earlier this month, Ms. Hong looked fatigued. When she talked about work, however, she shined again. “I could not let the sickness overwhelm me,” she said. “I could not stop drawing the cartoons, when I had the strength to hold the pen.”
Her efforts have paid off. The success of her cartoon depictions of Greek and Roman myths has brought her more than 3 billion won ($2.5 million) in royalties. She began publishing them in Nov. 2001; last month she produced her 18th volume.
In publishing circles, it’s estimated that the series has sold more than 10 million copies. The official figure from Ms. Hong’s publisher is five million copies, which would still make it the best-selling Korean comic book ever.
Success, however, has not made Ms. Hong rich, she said. “All I’ve got in my hands now is 10 million won,” she said.
Where did the money go? “I had to use part of the money to support my 16 apprentices, and the rest of it I gave to the needy,” she said. Cho Yeong-gi, 45, Ms. Hong’s husband and himself a cartoonist, added, “We lent, or more likely gave, the money to those who lost their jobs, or people whose businesses failed. We have no desire to save up money.”
Ms. Hong first learned of her illness in the summer of 2000. She went to see many doctors when various inflammations became unbearable.
It took time for doctors to diagnose her with Bechet’s disease, a chronic inflammatory ailment from which about 300 Koreans are known to suffer. The disease can endanger a patient’s life if the inflammation makes its way to the internal organs. Ms. Hong was told to take a break from work and stay in bed, and was prescribed strong medication.
“Back then, I never dreamed about my books selling this well,” Ms. Hong said. “I thought about giving up, but I couldn’t, thinking about the years it took for me to make up the characters.”
Her apprentices gave her massages; otherwise, she said, she would not have been able to move her fingers. “Her body was always swollen from the medication,” Mr. Cho said. “A few hours’ concentration exhausted her.”
Ms. Hong is set to wrap up her Greek and Roman myths project this year. Next, she plans a series on Chinese myths.
“Understanding myths is a critical step in understanding a country,” Ms. Hong said. “Chinese myths, in this sense, would be a big help to those who want to know China and oriental culture.”

by Lee Sang-eon
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